Renovating An Older House

Issue 103

By Neil Turner, Director, Howarth Litchfield

Buying a historic house or older property is the dream for many people in the North East, which could be a Victorian townhouse or Georgian manor house in the country or something simpler such as a lodge house or country cottage.

For many people they offer character, charm and quirkiness that a modern estate house simply can’t match. They also offer the opportunity to be remodelled and altered.

As a specialist conservation architect, I have a natural interest (and knowledge) of older buildings along with a keen interest in modern design solutions that can blend with historic fabric. So how do you go about altering your house to create the dream heritage home?

Firstly, I would check if the property were listed – for a direct impact on the building – or in a conservation area, which can affect some of the decisions on the building in terms of its relationship to other buildings.

Secondly, what is it that attracted you to the house in the first place? Consider this when looking to alter or radically redesign a house. Is it the height of the rooms or the intimacy of the spaces? Could it be the features and fireplaces, the detailing or the patina of the floors?

So, when you consider any alterations think about how they might affect these features or even improve them.

Budget: This is key when considering the priorities for your alterations. Sounds obvious, but your budget will drive all aspects. And do look for advice from your architect or quantity surveyor at the beginning of your alteration journey. I have written before about the value of a cost plan at the early stages of a design project.

Maintenance: This aspect is often overlooked on older properties, so when you are planning a build or renovation, solve the existing problems now or even before a new development. So often, I have seen people install beautiful new kitchens or undertake alterations when the original roof or gutters still leak.

Scale and proportion: If your house has a grand scale, then a new build should match or at least harmonise with the scale. There is nothing worse than seeing extensions on older buildings that are simply inappropriate in scale, form and materials.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t contrast an old building? Certainly not – and in fact, there is a good case for having a new extension or form to be clearly seen as new and not a slavish copy of the original house.

Impact and ambition can be well rewarded with the right design, so long as the budget exists to do this justice.

When altering a historic building this is an ideal time to look at the thermal performance of the house and what improvements can be made – from the simple and easy wins to the more capitalintensive installation of new heating, boilers and batteries.

The challenge of older buildings is to make them more energy efficient, lighter and of a design that enhances the circulation space required for modern day living. At the same time, you want to balance the historic features and charm with the new building plans.

Once completed, the success of your renovation should be judged by asking yourself – ‘has this house been improved and made more beautiful than when you started?’

Neil Turner, Director, Howarth Litchfield can be contacted on 0191 3849470 or email

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